Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sustainability, Sin, and Happiness

Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s Speaking of Faith, had a wonderful post called The Definition of Sustainability Expands with Vocation yesterday on the SOF Observed blog. It was a timely post: this Sunday’s lectionary lessons lend themselves to a discussion of sin and grace and our response to both, and the oil disaster in the Gulf has caused some people to look more seriously at the need to live in more sustainable ways. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Our emerging national conversation about sustainability has a decidedly “eat your spinach” tone. We’re steeling ourselves to enter the realm of sacrifice, and penance. But in all my conversations of recent years, I’ve been struck by the heightened sense of delight and beauty in lives and communities pursuing a new alignment with the natural world.

The assumption that doing the right thing will somehow make us miserable seems deeply rooted in some part of our culture.  If doing the right thing results in immediate deprivation of something we have experienced as pleasurable – think of cardiac patients who must avoid fatty foods – we assume that the misery will continue unabated, never to be overtaken by a greater pleasure. But, of course, people who go on low-fat diets often lose their taste for the foods that clogged up their arteries initially and experience great pleasure as their health and capacity to be more active improve.

More generally, sin, the seeking of our own will that distorts our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation (Book of Common Prayer Catechism, p. 848), while momentarily pleasurable or convenient or the path of least resistance, is bound to make us miserable because we aren’t in healthy relationship with God, other people, or the world around us. Repenting and turning to doing the right thing is bound to make us happier in the long-term.

Sen. Richard Lugar has introduced a new energy bill (see US senator offers scaled-back climate bill). Sen. Lugar says that it is unrealistic to cut down significantly on carbon emissions in tough economic times. There’s that buried assumption again, that doing the right thing by cutting down on carbon emissions will make us miserable. In this case, the argument is that it would make us so miserable that we cannot possibly find the political will to do the right thing. The bill would cut carbon emissions by 20% by 2030; the Kerry-Lieberman bill would cut emission 17% by 2020 (from 2005 levels). The AFP story about the bill ends with the reminder that “the Kerry bill already falls well below the UN climate change panel's recommendation of cuts of 25 to 40 percent from 1990 levels if the world wants to avoid growing severe weather and the extinction of entire species.

Krista Tippet’s post ends with this alternative vision of what happens when we do the right thing:

The writer Frederich Buechner has said that vocation happens “when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I’m beginning to see the work of sustainability as an unfolding vocation — not merely a response to problems, but an invitation to possibility and a way to strengthen moral resources such as delight, dignity, elegance, and hope.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Oceans: Oil and Plastic

It’s Day 50 of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. As days and weeks pass and more and more oil gushes into the water, people are more aware and more concerned about what has happened already and about the long-term effects of this on the gulf ecosystem. Humankind’s failure to care for creation as God intended us to do hits us forcefully as the effects become more obvious. We knew, of course, that if the oil kept gushing it would eventually pollute coastal waters and beaches; we knew that all sorts of wildlife would be endangered. But so often we don’t really believe something like this, aren’t really concerned about it, until we can actually see it unfold.

Images like this AP video of Gulf coast birds in the oil make the situation very real to us. 

As we think about how to respond to these heartbreaking images, it might be helpful to remember that petroleum is the raw material of plastics. As the oil seems to be everywhere in certain areas of the Gulf, plastics are everywhere in our world.  Right now, my hands are touching a plastic keyboard as I sit in a chair that’s upholstered with a synthetic fabric made from petroleum. If part of my response to the disaster in the Gulf is to lessen my demand for petroleum, I’ll need to reduce my use of plastic.

Plastic’s origin in petroleum isn’t its only connection to our most critical present concern, however. The way plastic is polluting the ocean has some parallels to the way the oil from BP’s broken well is polluting the Gulf.
  •        What we see of the oil spill on the surface of the water hides what may be the worst of the disaster, as some underwater cameras have shown us.  As marine animals swim through the oil, they ingest the polluted water, bits of tar, and other creatures that have been in contact with the oil. The worst of the plastic is also not readily visible. The big, visible chunks of plastic are both easy and unpleasant to see in the ocean, but the smaller nearly invisible bits permeate sections of the ocean and are ingested by marine animals and birds, thus entering the food chain.
  •          The long-term effects of both the oil in the Gulf (and the dispersants that have been thrown into the mix) and of the plastic particles in the ocean are unknown.
  •          People seem to find it hard to be very concerned about either offshore drilling or the plastic in the oceans   until images appear of birds dying, until it’s too late in many ways.
Some of the worst plastic for the oceans (because of the way it breaks down) is that found in plastic cutlery, including those white plastic spoons many parishes set out at coffee hour, and the forks and spoons we set out with disposable plates and cups at parish picnics and potlucks. 

One simple, concrete action we can take is to drastically reduce our use of single-use plastic, those things that are made to be used once and thrown away (wherever “away” might be).  For times when someone else has made the decision about utensils and nothing but disposable plastic is offered, some people carry their own utensils along. If it seems a bit much to carry your own knife, fork, and spoon with you, a spork (which combines all three in a single utensil) can be useful. Using something like this can not only avoid the use of a couple of single-use plastic utensils, but when people ask about the spork it’s a good opportunity to talk about our overuse of plastics and of petroleum in general. A simple way to show a congregation’s commitment to creation care is to avoid the use of disposable cups, plates, and utensils at parish functions.

Two events in recent days – one in my own backyard and one in Antarctica -- have reminded me of the importance of addressing our use of plastics as part of being intentional about environmental stewardship.  Recently I bought four bags of garden soil to help fill in some raised vegetable beds. (They will be filled further later in the summer with my own compost.) As I spread the soil over the beds, I started to see a familiar blue color in the soil – plastic bits! I picked up some of the bigger pieces for a photo:

Meanwhile, I saw this article about plastics – including fishing buoys and a plastic cup -- found in the seas around Antarctica.  The photo with the article shows a familiar sight, those same little bits of plastic that we see along the edges of lakes in Nebraska, on ocean beaches, or in garden soil from the nursery. Is this what God intended us to do with the gift of this beautiful planet?
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For more information about plastics in the ocean and ways we can take better care of the ocean and its creatures, search the web. Two places to begin are the Plastic Pollution Coalition website and the 5Gyres website.